The Photographic Documentation of Walter Burley Griffin’s American Work

Written for the book Walter Burley Griffin in America, which was published in 1995 as a hardcover and 2001 as a softcover by the University of Illinois Press.

This book creates a record of the American work of Walter Burley Griffin, the architect’s ideas, and the influence of his mentors. But it also celebrates the art of architectural photographic documentation. Beaumont Newhall, the noted photographic historian, once wrote, “The deep respect for the fact, coupled with the desire to create, marks documentary photography at its best.”[1] It was such a motivation that led me to photograph Griffin’s buildings and to produce this book.

I first became interested in architectural photographic documentation in 1970, while studying with Aaron Siskind at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology. Mr. Siskind introduced me to the work of Walker Evans, Frederick Evans, Eugene Atget, and Richard Nickel, among others. To this day I remain inspired by the images, dedication, and work ethic of these great photographers. Especially impressive to me were the photographs by Nickel and the stories about him that Siskind shared with me. 

Aaron Siskind’s early personal projects in the 1930s included photographing Victorian Carpenter Gothic buildings of Martha’s Vineyard (“Tabernacle City”) and a photo documentation of early architecture of Bucks County, Pennsylvania.[2] Siskind’s social documentary projects and work through the New York Photo League as well as his architectural studies were the primary reasons that Harry Callahan hired Aaron to teach at the Institute of Design in 1951.[3] Soon after his arrival at I.D., Siskind initiated a project in which his students would produce a definitive record of the work of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, an effort in which Richard Nickel was a participant. Nickel continued to work independently on this documentation after his graduation from I.D. in 1957, until the collapsed ruins of Adler and Sullivan’s Stock Exchange took his life on 13 April 1972 as he was making photographs and salvaging materials from the partially demolished building.[4]

In the early days of the Adler and Sullivan project, Siskind made a statement that has since become a keynote for my own work. He said, “Our photographs are based on an objective study of the meaning of architecture and an esthetic restraint that is basic to all documentary photography.”[5] More recently, Joseph D. Jachna, another important photographer who was a student of Siskind and a teacher of mine, also described the project, recalling that those who took part in it “learned through research methods and adopted a style free of sentimentality or the flair which was common to commercial photography.”[6] This respectful and straightforward approach to architectural photographic documentation is one that I maintain in my work.

My interest in Richard Nickel was rekindled in 1978, when Victor Sorell, an art historian, and curator, asked me to assist him in preparing an exhibit of architectural photography at the Park Forest (Illinois) Art Center and to participate in the show.[7] I was honored to help select the images that would represent Nickel and to have my photographs shown with his; but I was also interested to learn about the attitudes and work of Harold Allen, another participant in the exhibition. Allen had once written: “The documentary photographer succeeds best when he thinks enough of his subject (with all its miraculous precision and sophistication) at the service of the subject, and shows it to us simply, honesty, and clearly with the inevitable beauty of truth.”[8] This statement and Allen’s books have become central to my teaching at Chicago State University and to my architectural photography projects. 

Also in 1978, Victor Sorell introduced me to Tom Yanul, a photographer and enthusiast of the Prairie School of architecture. In 1971 Yanul worked with Paul Sprague, then a professor at the University of Chicago, in documenting the newly discovered work of Walter Burley Griffin in the Beverly Hills area of Chicago. Yanul owned the Salmon House, designed by Griffin, and I was breathless upon viewing it for the first time. Here, within the constraints of a city lot, was a house designed by a prominent architect that was both eloquent and affordable to middle-income folks. It reminded me of Louis Sullivan’s remark in his Kindergarten Chats: “Until democracy produced a good architecture and good art, it could not produce a good life for its citizens.”[9] The Salmon House had the simple, rational design that characterized much of the Prairie School and was the hallmark of an organic, democratic architecture.

Two years later, in 1980, I purchased the Jenkinson House (fig. 1), designed by Griffin in 1912 and built-in 1913 in the Beverly Hills area. On first seeing the house, I had been impressed by the building’s clear, precise, angular design. Dark-stained rough-sawn cedar siding covers the square base of the house up to the sills of the first-floor windows, which are centered on each façade. At the four corners of the house, the siding continues up to the sills of the second-story windows, forming Griffin’s trademark corner piers. On the street façade, a row of identical second-floor windows interrupts the vertical strips of stucco framed by cedar boards, creating a grid. A vertical emphasis is achieved by the alignment of the windows and their trim on the basement, first floor, and second floor, and by the stacking of the first and second-floor enclosed porches at the rear of the house. The arrangement of the porches and other vertical elements draw the eye upward to the shade of the wide overhanging eaves that top of the house (fig. 2). Griffin’s design shows his respect for the community of neighboring houses. There are seven other Griffin-designed homes on the block and a total of twelve Griffin designs within walking distance of each other, adding to the visual richness of the Beverly area.

Moving inside the house (fig. 3) via the side entrance (a device Griffin employed almost exclusively in his residential designs), one sees that the interior reflects the exterior design. The exposed structural ceiling beams and the wood trim bordering the windows and doors are stained dark. Throughout the house, these elements unite the window and door groupings and help create a horizontal visual emphasis in the interior space. An L-shaped or open floor plan allows the living room space to flow into the dining room, with the central fireplace acting as the anchor of the plan. The fireplace, built of dark Roman brick, again demonstrates Griffin’s interest in corner piers. The corners of the fireplace rise higher than the center portion; all three sections are topped by a cap that forms a shallow bi-level mantel. The light-colored textured walls repeat the use of cement as found on the exterior, but with a more subtle surface inside. The interiors of the first- and second-story screened porches utilize materials identical to those on the exterior. The tent ceiling of the second-floor porch and the view offered into the trees beyond transform the interior of the porch into a space that is in perfect harmony with the surrounding landscape.

After vising the Jenkinson House for the first time, I knew it had to be mine. It was as though the house had been built just for me. It embodied all the values I sought in my architectural photography – straightforwardness, respect, and honesty. In the past I had worked with the play of geometry in nature, and here was a house designed by an architect who was concerned with geometry and design that worked with nature.

Eager to learn more about my house and its designer, I began reading and collecting information on Griffin, his Prairie School contemporaries, and those who had influenced him.[10] One book, more than any other, was responsible for piquing and then sustaining my interest in the Prairie School. That was H. Allen Brook’s The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries. It was an indispensable source for my understanding of Griffin’s work in the context of the Prairie School. I also found “Magic of America,” an unpublished manuscript by Griffin’s wife, the architect Marion Mahony Griffin, to be extremely helpful in gaining a better understanding of Walter Burley Griffin’s ideas and philosophy. One passage, in particular, that is important to me can be found in his 1920 essay “Form-Texture-Color,” as transcribed by his wife:

Honesty is quite as basic a necessity in architecture as in other fields of life. We find here as everywhere that spiritual qualities precede material expression and real and permanent beauties can result only on such a foundation. Thus, to attain beautiful results in architecture there must be no superficial requirements, but purely rational ones, and the whole effort of the architect must be bent toward the accomplishment of three things: An absolute solution of the problem resulting from due consideration of all elements which have any bearing on it; an honest use of materials in accordance with their nature; and perfection of form.[11]

It is apparent through Griffin’s essays and by his own admission that he was greatly influenced by Louis Sullivan. Therefore, I thought it important to study Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats as a source for my understanding of Griffin. In essay 15, “Thought,” Sullivan summarizes a concept that must have been crucial to Griffin’s development as a mature, caring architect: “So, first learn to think, then, learn to act. When you think organically, you will act organically. Just as soon as your thoughts begin to take on an organic quality, your buildings will begin to take on an organic quality, and thereafter they will grow and develop together.”[12]

In seeking other sources about Griffin, I was disappointed to find that little had been published about my house or about Griffin’s work in the Beverly Hills area of Chicago, except for a 1973 essay and catalog by Paul Sprague in the Prairie School Review.[13] Of course, this publication became a primer for me. Only after I had lived in a Griffin house for a decade would I have the opportunity to meet and thank Sprague for his contributions to my early study of Griffin. Fortunately, he has continued his support of my work and of this book with advice and valued information.

As a resident of Beverly Hills, I was familiar with the interesting diversity of architectural styles in the twin communities of Beverly Hills/Morgan Park. In 1985, my previous independent work in the communities led to a commission by the Beverly Area Planning Association in cooperation with the Chicago Architectural Foundation to document the historic and significant architecture and environment of these communities with my four-by-five Deardorff view camera.[14] The scope and concept of the survey limited me primarily to the use of a single, whole-house, exterior perspective. Twelve Griffin-designed homes were part of more than 250 structures I documented (half of which were exhibited) and became the seed for this in-depth study of the American architecture of Walter Burley Griffin.

The Beverly Hills/Morgan Park project provided me with the opportunity to work with Timothy Barton, a researcher and writer for the Commission on Chicago Historic and Architectural Landmarks, and Robert Weitz, an art historian, curator, and current chairperson of the Department of Art and Design at Chicago State University. Both of these talented and generous individuals have continued to provide me with encouragement and valuable advice.

The year 1988 was important for the Maldre family. By then we had lived “with” our house for eight years. That year also marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the house. My twin sons, Erik and Matthew (I always thought it was ironic that several of Griffin’s designs were for twin houses or houses as a set of two), designed commemorative symbols to celebrate the occasion. I had completed the stripping of wallpaper and wood and the staining of wood. With the major part of the restoration completed, I was ready to accept an invitation to conduct tours of my house and the other Griffin houses in the community for the Australian Consul General and others who were interested in Griffin. My wife, Kathy, had nurtured her garden and her indoor plants to a point where they complemented the house beautifully. In short, the house had become an important part of our lives. We were experiencing what Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Walter Burley Griffin had meant by “organic architecture”: the spirit and essence of the house, the overall sensation and the use of building, had transcended the designer’s forms.

With my interest, appreciation, and respect for Griffin’s ideas and his work, I sought out and received a grant from the Graham Foundation in 1988 that would allow me to photograph all of the existing structures designed by Griffin in America. During the early stages of this project, my daughter, Kristina, worked with me at the Burnham Library of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Historical Society, and the Block Gallery at Northwestern University. From this research and my earlier readings, we established a list of forty-nine structures and sites designed by Griffin. After photographing for a year and visiting Grinnell and Mason City, Iowa, I thought it was appropriate to include the work of Marion Mahony Griffin. It was apparent that her work on details, decoration, and fireplaces was integrated beautifully in her husband’s overall designs. The Griffins became a productive team both professionally and philosophically. The American architectural historian Mark L. Peisch has characterized the 1911 Griffin marriage as “an artistic union so perfect that to distinguish or separate their careers after this date becomes impossible.”[15] With the inclusion of Marion Mahony Griffin’s work in Decatur, Illinois, my list of buildings for the project now numbered fifty-three and formed the basis for the list of standing buildings and selected landscapes by place that appears in the present book.

This list of buildings and selected landscapes (which now includes a concordance of catalog and plate numbers of each building in this book) could not have been brought to its final form without the generous help of Tim Barton and Tim Samuelson, both from the Commission on Chicago Historical Architectural Landmarks; Paul Sprague, University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee; and Paul Kruty, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

I first met Paul Kruty in 1990, when Tom Yanul helped make arrangements for Kruty and the students in his Prairie School seminar at the School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Griffin’s alma mater, to visit my house. After his visit, and because of his reputation for conducting in-depth research, his knowledge about the Prairie School, and, most important to me, his enthusiasm for Walter Burley Griffin’s work, I asked Paul if he would collaborate with me in the preparation of this publication. Paul called my attention to several new Griffin attributions, bringing the total number of standing buildings to the present sixty-four. The essay and illustrated catalog Paul has written serve well to introduce us to Griffin’s life and career and to help us understand clearly the scope of the architect’s work. For the first time, we have an accurate and complete record of all the buildings designed by Griffin that were actually built in America, including those that unfortunately have been destroyed. The selected bibliography Paul has compiled for this book points the way to essential sources of information about Griffin’s American work. 

While photographing Griffin’s buildings I had to make certain choices that were both technical and aesthetic. I believe that a photographer has a responsibility to technique even while wanting to produce creative images. Given my training and experience, the technical choices were the easiest to make, providing me with more time to concentrate on the aesthetic issues. I solved the basic technical problems by using my four-by-five Deardorff view camera with its wonderful perspective-correcting adjustable wooden back and lens board. With the various movements (tilts and swings) of the view camera and the appropriate choice of lens, it was possible not only to correct distortions but also to record a building from an otherwise impossible or tight vantage point. Horizontal and vertical grid lines printed on the ground-glass of the camera aid in aligning a building so it will be reproduced parallel and perpendicular to the edges of the viewing frame and, later, the print frame.

Normally I used a Schneider Super Angulon 90 mm lens or a Schneider 150 mm (normal) lens, with 75 mm and 210 mm lenses available but seldom utilized. Typically I closed down my lens to the smallest opening of f/45 or f/64, which produces the greatest depth-of-field. Additional sharpness was achieved by using the lens board movements as well as Kodak Plus-X 4×5 sheet film. I used this fine-grain film exclusively because of its ability to record details with great fidelity and for its great range of tonal values.

In addition to my camera, lenses, film, and film holders, a host of other necessary accessories aided my work. Most important among them were a sturdy braced tripod, a reliable Gossen Luna Pro light meter, a spot light meter, cable releases, filters (although I rarely used them), spirit and carpenter levels, magnifying glasses and loupes, equipment cases, and a picnic cooler to keep film cool in summer or warm in winter while in the field. All of this equipment and the very method of viewing an image upside down and reversed on a ground-glass under a dark focusing cloth made the act of using a view camera slow and, at times, cumbersome. But the deliberate and slow pace was also a blessing as it allowed me to take time and care in developing a well-crafted composition. Coupled with knowledge and respect of both the subject matter and photography, as well as the finest precision equipment, the view camera experience became most gratifying.

Photographs that municipal, state, and federal bodies use to document landmark buildings, such as some I produced for the Beverly Hills/Morgan Park project, have their own technical and visual requirements. I found a good source of guidance in “Introduction to Photographing Historic Properties,” by Kirk Gittings, which appeared in Forum Information, a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.[16] When the photographer is working within these requirements, an accurate, factual record of the architecture and its environment will be paramount. When this procedure is integrated with the photographer’s own personal interpretation, the architectural photographer will be at his or her artistic best, communicating facts with visually strong images.

Just as aesthetic choices are modified by technical restraints, so also are the choices one makes in dealing with lighting. Whenever possible, I attempted to photograph on sunny or bright days, so the building, its details, and its textures would stand out. I preferred the use of natural light for the interior shots, but additional artificial lighting was used to achieve a natural look that complemented the available light, by using a single light direction and shadow which corresponded to that produced by the sunlight. 

The changes in the foliage with the passing of the seasons introduced other choices, therefore I returned to photograph many of the structures and sites at different times of year. This way, I was assured of capturing the most accurate and interesting view of each building in its environment. For example, I widened the normal view camera format to emphasize what Griffin considered his primary function as “a ground planner.” In 1912 he stated, “I am what may be termed a naturalist in architecture. . . I believe in architecture that is the logical outgrowth of the environment in which the building is to be located.”[17] The panoramic format also proved ideally suited for recording the relationship of a structure or group of structures to each other as well as to the environment.

When exploring the details that would represent the whole, I allowed the subject to dictate the composition and format. Possessing a firm understanding of and respect for Griffin’s intent, I strove to produce images and prints that represented both the art and science of photography as well as my personal and practical interpretation of the subject. As Minor White, the noted photographer, educator, and former editor of Aperture, observed, “The ideal architecture photograph is a record of the interpretation of facts.”[18]

White also wrote, “Today’s architectural photographer has the responsibility of achieving a reputation, a reputation for the feeling for architecture.”[19] When this “feeling” or “spirit” manifests itself, then the photographing becomes fresh and exciting, and the photographer becomes an “organic” part of the photographic process. The real love and joy of my work and this project were not only in photographing but also in producing prints in my darkroom when my experiences in the field were reborn. The crafting of my own prints to complement my vision has always been an important, vital, and necessary part of my creating images.

From the outset of this project, I thought it was crucial that I ensure a complete and honest documentation by recording all existing American structures designed by Griffin. Therefore I photographed even drastically altered houses in which it is almost impossible to recognize the original design. It was with this group of houses that Aaron Siskind’s dictum – “aesthetic restraint is basic to all documentary photography” – took on its greatest meaning.

It is my hope that this publication will help to solidify Griffin’s place in the nation’s architectural heritage and that it will foster appreciation and further study of his buildings and ideas. I also hope that, with this inspiration and guidance, the owners of the remaining Griffin buildings will avoid further drastic alterations of his work, and that no more of his buildings will be demolished. The preservation of houses that were created as spaces of harmony and warmth must be the responsibility for all, not just those fortunate enough to live within them.

Selected photos

Fig. 1. Jenkinson House (back to text)
Fig. 2. Jenkinson House, rear view with porches on both floors (back to text)
Fig. 3. Jenkinson House, living room, central fireplace, and dining room (back to text)

» View more from the series “Walter Burley Griffin in America, B&W, 1987-1991


[1] I am grateful to the Griffin homeowners for their help, cooperation, and understanding. The fact that they were gracious enough to let me document their homes is not an open invitation for the public to disregard their privacy. I encourage others to study and add to the documentation of our architectural heritage while respecting the privacy of the residents, their property, and their environment.

Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present Day, 5th ed. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1982), 238.

[2] The context for Siskind’s work is established nicely in William Morgan’s essay for Siskind’s Bucks County: Photographs of Early Architecture by Aaron Siskind (New York: Bucks County Historical Society, Horizon Press, 1974).

[3] For a detailed account of the history of the Institute of Design, including photographs by students and teachers, edited with interviews by Charles Traub and an essay by John Grimes, see Forty Years of Photography at the Institute of Design (Millerston, NY: Aperture, 1982).

[4] For a detailed account of Nickel’s life, see Richard Cahan, They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel’s Struggle to Save America’s Architecture (Washington, D.C.: Preservation Press, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1994).

[5] Aaron Siskind’s statements were taken from an audio tape provided by Richard Nickel; they appeared in print for the first time in Minor White’s “Substance of Architectural Photography,” Aperture 6, no. 4 (1958): 167.

[6] Joseph D. Jachna, letter to Mati Maldre, 17 March 1992. I am grateful to Mr. Jachna for providing me with rare materials that helped me gain an insight into the work and the roles of Aaron Siskind and Richard Nickel.

[7] The exhibition Architectural Photography: Harold Allen, Lopez & Medina, Mati Maldre, and Richard Nickel, curated by Victor A. Sorrell, was on display at the Park Forest Art Center, Park Forest, Illinois from 19 February through 12 March 1978. John Vinci gave a talk entitled “Architecture, Photography, and Documentation” as part of the opening program.

[8] Deborah Stein Frumkin. Harold Allen, Photographer and Teacher (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1984), 11.

[9] Louis H. Sullivan. Kindergarten Chats (revised 1918) and Other Writings, Documents of Modern Art, vol. 4 (New York: George Wittenborn, 1947), 152.

[10] The most substantive works on Griffin are: H. Allen Brooks, The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972); James Birrell, Walter Burley Griffin (Santa Lucia, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1964); Donald Leslie Johnson, The Architecture of Walter Burley Griffin (South Melbourne: Macmillan Company of Australia, 1977); Mark L. Peisch, The Chicago School of Architecture: Early Followers of Sullivan and Wright (New York: Random House, 1964); David T. Van Zanten, Walter Burley Griffin: Selected Designs (Palos Park, Ill: Prairie School Press, 1970).

[11] Marion Mahony Griffin, “Magic of America,” section 4, unpublished manuscript at the Burnham Library of the Art Institute of Chicago c. 1949, 108.

[12] Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats, 52.

[13] Paul E. Sprague, “Griffin Rediscovered in Beverly,” and “Griffin’s Beverly Buildings, A Catalog,” Prairie School Review 10, no. 1 (1973): 6-32.

[14] The exhibition Beverly Hills / Morgan Park: Photographs by Mati Maldre was on display at the Chicago Architecture Foundation ArchiCenter Gallery, Chicago, from 18 April through 14 June 1986.

[15] Mark L. Peisch, The Chicago School of Architecture: Early Followers of Sullivan and Wright (New York: Random House, 1964), 57.

[16] Kirk Gittings, “Introduction to Photographing Historic Properties,” Forum Information, no. 42 (Washington, D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1988).

[17] Donald Leslie Johnson, The Architecture of Walter Burley Griffin (South Melbourne: Macmillan Company of Australia, 1977), 138.

[18] Minor White, “Substance and Spirit of Architectural Photography,” Aperture 6, no. 4 (1958): 159.

[19] Ibid, 156.